On another thread, about whether Jesus claimed to be God, the subject of Jesus saying “I am” in the Gospel of John came up, and since that comments section was rather cluttered already, it was suggested that it might be worth creating a separate post on the subject.
I thought it was a great idea.
The question that was asked had to do with whether “I am” was thought to be a name of God in this period. But I’d rather begin with the Gospel of John, because it seems to me that, even if no one previously had suggested that “I am” was a name of God, the author of that Gospel may have understood the phrase that way.
The author of the Gospel of John was not the first to suggest that Jesus had had the divine name bestowed upon him. In Philippians 2:6-11, the name that is above every name is said to be bestowed upon Jesus when he is highly exalted by God. Despite what you may sometimes hear, there is no way that any Jew thought that the name “Joshua” was the “name above every name.” The only name that fits the latter description is the divine name, thought by many to be too holy to utter. It is presumably that divine name, Yahweh, that is hinted at through the use of “Lord” as a circumlocution, as was frequent then as also today.
In Exodus 3, the divine name Yahweh is explained in terms of “I am that I am” (or several other variations, including “I am the one who is” in the Septuagint). The repeated “I am” also becomes a phrase by which the one God declares his unique existence in Deutero-Isaiah.
Whether anyone in John’s time thought that “I am” was the divine name is debatable. But the author of the Gospel of John provides hints that he understood it this way.
The author of John holds a different view than the author of the hymnic passage in Philippians 2. John 17:12 depicts Jesus as saying, “While I was with them, I protected them and kept them safe by that name you gave me.” According to John, Jesus not only already has the divine name during his earthly existence, but he uses that name to protect the disciples.
In John’s version of the Gethsemane story, we see the climactic example of this. Jesus utters “I am” – which could simply mean “It is I” – or in the context, perhaps a better rendering would be “that’s me.” Yet the fact that those who’ve come to arrest him fall to the ground at the pronouncement has long led interpreters to understand that there is another layer besides that possible mundane meaning of the phrase. And so ought this not to be understood as an example of Jesus protecting the disciples through the name which God gave him?
If “I am” is or stands for the divine name in John, then John 8 makes much more sense, in my opinion. One of the puzzles of that chapter, as C. K. Barrett famously pointed out, is that it has Jesus say an absolute “I am” (puzzling his hearers at first, and leading them to attempt to stone him at the end), but then go on to say that he does nothing of himself, but only the will of the one who sent him.
If Jesus is saying “I am God” then the statement of submission is bizarre. If Jesus just says “It’s me” then the reaction of the hearers, even if mistaken on one level, still seems bizarre. But if Jesus utters “I am” because he is the agent of God who has been bestowed the divine name, then a lot of pieces seem to me to fall into place, and the response of those who hear him reflects the same sort of misunderstanding that we see in chapters 5 and 10 of the same Gospel.
I explore the above in a lot more detail in my book John’s Apologetic Christology, which was based on my doctoral dissertation, which you can access online via Durham’s online repository of theses.